Police seek budget increase for mental health officers

Victoria police are looking to add three new officers to aid with increased mental health and crime issues in the downtown core.

Victoria police are looking to add three new officers to aid with increased mental health and crime issues in the downtown core.

As part of the Victoria Police Department’s proposed budget for 2017, police are seeking two new officer positions for a two-year pilot project to divert people suffering from mental health or addiction issues away from the criminal justice system and into recovery.

The additional officers would be a part of the Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team in the region, which is comprised of nursing staff, outreach and social workers, a probation officer, a police officer, a ministry and social development worker, who provide support to people living with severe and persistent mental illness.

There are currently two officers on the team — one position was added in July as part of a six-month pilot project and has resulted in 12 police referrals during the last four-and-a-half months, acting police chief Del Manak told Victoria city council Thursday.

The new officers would act in a more preventative nature, dealing with outreach and stabilization, and assisting with more violent or extreme members of the public — some of whom other ACT members are hesitant to deal with at times.

The department is also seeking another officer for its community crime watch program. As part of the program, volunteers go out into the community, observe suspicious behaviour and report back to a crime watch officer, who decides whether or not to take action.

The two additional ACT officers come at a cost of $240,141 for each of the two years, while the crime watch officer would cost $143,675 annually.

Police made a similar budget request to approve a two-year, $500,000 pilot project last year, but were turned down.

But Manak said this proposal is much stronger than the last, adding the department is also in the process of finalizing a mental health strategy that puts forward a more philosophical view about how police should approach mental illness in the community.

“The Victoria Police Department differentiates people who are vulnerable, people who need help, and people who have mental illness. Our goal is not to arrest those people, our goal is help those people and divert them away from criminal justice system,” Manak said.

Most councillors expressed support for the request, noting they will wait to hear from the general public about safety on streets. However, not all councillors were on board with the idea.

Coun. Ben Isitt questioned why police are being forced to take on social issues, which should be the responsibility of the province.

“I don’t blame the chief from coming to council looking for more money, but the fact is I would rather see us push back against the province,” Isitt said. “I’d much rather focus advocacy efforts with Esquimalt council and the police board than a motion to keep throwing money at the department and accepting and condoning provincial responsibilities.”

Overall, the department is seeking a $2.2 million increase in its 2017 budget to $50.8 million.

Manak said increased densification in the city has resulted in a jump in crimes rates over the past two years and increased workloads on officers, who are being “stretched thin.”

Officers are being forced to juggle more time spent on missing people investigations, domestic disturbance calls, overdose calls related to fentanyl, as well as increased security around city events, as a result of international events, such as the bombing at the Boston Marathon in 2013, and the shooting at Pulse Night Club in Orlando in June, he noted.

Funding for the department is shared between Esquimalt and Victoria. The budget will be finalized in January.